Blending portraits with defunct bolívar banknotes, Felipe Jácome captures the exhaustion of Venezuelan migrants and the broken country from which they flee
A group of adults and children appear on the horizon. Getting closer, one woman becomes defensive: “I don’t want any photographs,” she says, cradling a baby in a blanket in her arms and gesturing to Felipe Jácome’s camera. The group continue walking, but, as they do, the child’s leg slips out. A malnourished leg. A leg the size of a thumb.
Jácome does not take photographs without permission, and so he is taken aback by the woman’s adversity — he had no plans to photograph her without her consent. However, he quickly acknowledges the intrusiveness of his camera: unwelcome amid the desperation and vulnerability. “It was at that moment, upon seeing the baby’s leg, that I realised these people had lost everything,” says the Ecuadorian documentary photographer, who accompanied Venezuelan migrants, known collectively as Los Caminantes, or the Walkers, as they fled the ongoing crisis unfolding in their home.
The crisis in Venezuela is not new. The election of Nicolás Maduro to president in April 2013 precipitated an economic free fall in what is now South America’s poorest nation. Today, the national currency is nearly worthless, and predictions indicate that hyperinflation, which began in 2016, may increase to 12,000 per cent this year. Food, water, electricity and medicine are scarce. Political turmoil is rife with the country’s two presidents, Maduro, and the opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who declared himself acting president on 23 January 2019, engaged in an ongoing struggle for power.
As a result, a mass exodus, unprecedented in peacetime, has ensued, with the UNHCR reporting over four million Venezuelans emigrating to date. This year, predictions suggest that number will surpass the number of Syrians driven from their country by the civil war, yet, despite this, the Venezuelan humanitarian crisis, one of the largest in history, has received disproportionate international aid.
Initially, Jácome was covering the refugees’ arrival in Ecuador, when a young Venezuelan handed him an origami star constructed from a worthless bolívar banknote. “I held that origami figure in my hands and wondered what everyday life was like in a land where the money had stopped being money and where a monthly wage can barely purchase a bag of rice,” wrote Jácome in an article for The Washington Post, reflecting on an exchange, which compelled him to witness the exodus himself.
“In 2019, I reached the Venezuelan border, and there were hundreds of people leaving the country,” remembers the photographer, who travelled from Cúcuta, a town on the border of Venezuela and Columbia, 125 miles to Bucaramanga, Colombia, covering up to 25 miles per day of inhospitable terrain, and crossing the Berlin Páramo, an alpine tundra at 9,000 ft where temperatures can fall below zero degrees. Jácome accompanied Venezeualans and photographed them as they walked. Employing a silver gelatin darkroom process, the resulting images blend portraits with defunct bolívar banknotes — manifestations of the “cause and consequence of the crisis” from which his subjects have escaped.
“I hope the images will have the same effect on viewers as receiving the origami note had on me,” continues Jácome, “that they make people wonder what could be happening for money to lose its value and the implications of that.”
Caminantes, The Venezuelan Exodus, by Felipe Jácome is on show in Anastasia Photo’s virtual viewing room until 25 July 2020.
Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.